Colombo’s Changing Cityscape

This post was written by Emily Marshall



Reconstruction and development in Sri Lanka has centred primarily on rapid economic development since the end of the war in 2009 (Bopage, 2010; Goodhand, 2011).  This can be seen in the current drive to transform Colombo into a “world-class city”, as a “preferred destination for international business and tourism” (Secretary of Defence and Urban Development).  The improvements can easily be seen in infrastructural developments across Colombo including roads, shopping centres, restaurants, public spaces such as parks, pavements and redeveloped buildings / heritage sites.  Whilst the state has won much praise for the new infrastructure, the dark side of the infrastructural development in Colombo has not been well-documented or publicised, so there is a lack of social awareness surrounding issues such as land acquisition and the loss of communities, cultures and lifestyles.  With this in mind I attended a café discussion called ‘The City and its People: Documenting the changing landscape’ organised by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) which featured 3 keynote speakers talking about the ways in which they document the changing city landscape so that social history is not lost within the current drive for modernisation.

Chandragupta Thenuwara

The first speaker, Chandragupta Thenuwara, is a well-known artist in Sri Lanka who combines artwork with social accountability, communicating the environmental and social effects of state control through his installations.  His presentation explored the messages behind his work, in particular his work portraying the militarisation of space through ‘camouflage’, such as painted barrels, and other symbols of state control within society.  An interesting interview with Chandragupta can be seen here.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted barrels arranged on the road.
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted barrels arranged on the road.
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted Barrels
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted Barrels
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Neo barrelism, 2007 Installation with painted PVC yellow pipes, Lionel Wendt gallery, A view of the exhibition 'neo Barrelsim'
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Neo barrelism, 2007 Installation with painted PVC yellow pipes, Lionel Wendt gallery. A view of the exhibition ‘neo Barrelsim’

“The barrels block my view”.  The stimulus behind Thenuwara’s ‘Barrelsim’ came from the armed conflict in Sri Lanka which saw the landscape heavily transformed by the use of barrels.  Thenuwara explored the presence of the barrel through his artwork, expounding it was not a neutral object, but one loaded with connotations of power, subjugation, and ethnic division.  Thenuwara’s work has continued to explore society, ethnicity and (urban) landscapes through the medium of camouflage, such as camouflaged barbed wire imagery which has become a powerful symbol representative of internally displaced people (IDP) camps and deep-rooted ethnic issues such as the politics of inclusion/exclusion based on ethnicity, and ethnic identities.

‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr
‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr
‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr
‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr

Thenuwara’s most recent installation at the Lionel Wendt explored the ‘beautification’ of urban areas.  The ‘Beautification’ installation used the gallery space to critique Sri Lanka’s post-war urban development strategy of ‘beautification’ (through the military), which according to Thenuwara has created dehumanised sterile spaces with no traces of the past, communities, or culture.  Thenuwara’s compelling argument is that beautification is the new camouflage.

Priyanthi Fernando

The second speaker was the ‎Executive Director at Centre for Poverty Analysis, Priyanthi Fernando.  For years Priyanthi has done what many in Sri Lanka are too afraid to do, and taken to the roads by bicycle or on foot, documenting the ‘before and after’ changes in the city on camera.  The photo focusing on the loss of land, livelihood and homes of the Dhobi (washermen) community highlighted the need to not just document, but also preserve the cultures that are almost being washed away by the new facelift Colombo is having.

Bulldozed area in Perahera Mawatha, where the Dhobi community used to reside. The remains of a Kovil can be seen on the left.
Nawam Mawatha, the new home of the Dhobie community
Nawam Mawatha, the new home of the Dhobie community

Some communities who have been forcibly evicted have been relocated, whilst others have not.  The Dhobies have been relocated, but their new location is away from the main road and the ‘eyes of passers-by’.  The Dhobies say that whilst the facilities they have got are relatively good, they are living in a state of uncertainty, with another forced move on the cards in two years.   Living with such uncertainty can lead to a plethora of negative consequences including the build-up of tensions, stress, or anxiety, and thus needs to be considered in future urban planning initiatives.   More information about the Dhobi communities is available on Priyanthi’s blog, here.

Abdul-Halik Azeez

Finally, the third speaker, Abdul-Halik Azeez (@ColomBedouin), spoke about the augmentation of #instameetSL, a group from Colombo who use Instagram to document and preserve the changing city environment from multiple perspectives.  The presentation focused on pictures recording the areas of Pettah market and Maradana Railway Station, some featuring houses part-way through demolition, and others focusing on people, with Abdul bringing the photos to life by telling the stories behind them (see below).  For further information and photos by Abdul, have a look at the Picture Press website, which is a photojournalism initiative where ‘great photographs meet compelling narratives’.

‘Tree Workers’ by @ColomBedouin via Statigram
‘Tree Workers’ by @ColomBedouin via Instagram

“I was taking a picture of this tree when Dassanayake (center) politely told me not to.  It was a sacred tree he said.  I think he said it was a Sal tree.  Sal flowers are very popular to place in worship of the Buddha, he said, people from all over seek this tree out for its produce.  Apparently it is particularly effective in helping out couples trying to have children.  Dassanayake is a practicing Buddhist, but he speaks fluent Tamil with the Abans cleaning lady close by, he drives a truck for the same company.  His taciturn shoe-repairman friend, a Christian, sat under the same tree minding his own beeswax.  The tree is located right outside the Asiri hospital. You find many interesting people here making a living out of the cracks in the economy of Colombo’s emerging new upper middle class who are increasingly laying claim to the city.  Just a few moments before I met Saman, who is a ‘rent-seeking’ unsanctioned ‘parking assistant’.  He will help you park, trusting you to tip him for a service you at times do not even require. Business must be good though, because Saman has been at it for 18 years.  Colombo is changing though and increasingly people like Saman and Dassanayake’s friend are finding it hard to eke out a living.  Many informal entrepreneurs like them have been cleared out of the city as the government pushes forward a beautification project to turn Colombo into something like Singapore.  Saman politely asked not to be photographed because he didn’t want trouble.  A TV crew interviewed him a while ago and he got all the wrong kind of attention as a result.  Survivors have to keep low key I guess. Please tag your photo narratives about changing Colombo under the hash tag #ChangingColombo  Add #ContemplatingIndependence if you’re also exploring thoughts of ethnic harmony and ‘freedom’ #Colombo #SriLanka #Development #StreetPhotography” (@colombedouin, via Instagram)


Concluding Remarks

The presentations ran into discussions ranging from the necessity of citizen empowerment to challenge undemocratic forms of urban development, to the lack of social awareness within certain sectors of society due to the notable absence of publicised information on the issues of relocation and land acquisition processes.

It would seem the infrastructural improvements, which have primarily been carried out by the military, have taken place in a highly centralized manner with little evidence that the poor are either consulted or are intended as beneficiaries.   The planning process has resulted in many of the poorer citizens being relocated, losing their homes or, in many instances their businesses, communities and livelihoods.    This trend is going to continue to play out across Colombo, and indeed Sri Lanka, so whilst preserving history, cultures and communities through documenting changes is imperative, further research and awareness raising is crucial to mitigate the negative impacts on the country’s poorer citizens, and ultimately inform urban development policy.




Bopage, L. (2010), Post-War Sri Lanka: Way Forward or More of the Same?, Ground Views, 23rd May, available at

Goodhand, J. (2001) Sri Lanka in 2011: Consolidation and Militarization of the Post-War Regime, Asian Survey, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 130-137

Sri Lanka – A Land Like No Other

The Hills & Tea Plantations near Haputale, em11
The Hills & Tea Plantations near Haputale

My love affair with the island started about 6 years ago and although in the past Sri Lanka may have been in the news for all the wrong reasons with the devastating civil war, tsunami and flooding, now it is little wonder that the Lonely Planet has listed Sri Lanka as the top country to visit in 2013.  Sri Lanka really could be described as “undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world” (Marco Polo) with its incredibly diverse landscapes, climates and cultural heritage tucked around every corner, which has never ceased to amaze my various visitors.

The Sri Lankan smile_my friends on their wedding day, em12
The Sri Lankan smile_my friends on their wedding day

When thinking about why Sri Lanka captured my heart early on, the answer lies with the people and the warmth/hospitality that they show towards each other and ‘outsiders’.  Unlike sitting on the underground in London, strangers will often strike-up conversation with each other so even a possibly mundane journey to work in the mornings can be enjoyable and varied.  I have also always been staggered by how people in Sri Lanka will go out of their way to help each other, whether it is assisting a stranger with a broken down bike or cooking for elderly neighbours.  A lot of good traits can be learnt from other people and something I took away with me from Sri Lanka was the quality of sharing.  Most things seem to be shared between friends and family, from necessities such as money to treats like a Mars bar which unquestioningly can be divided up between the number of people present.  This friendly, helpful attitude extends towards tourists too who almost always comment on how welcome they feel in Sri Lanka.

Dambulla Caves, em5
Dambulla Caves

Sri Lanka has a long and interesting history, so culture vultures such as myself revel in the countless temples, colonial forts, carved statues and ancient cities which are scattered about the country.  One of my personal favourites is the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was the capital of Sri Lanka in 993 after the fall of Anuradhapura and interestingly was used in a Duran Duran music video in the 1980s.

Ancient ruins, Polonnaruwa,em
Ancient ruins, Polonnaruwa

Food wise in Sri Lanka, especially as a vegetarian, you cannot go wrong with the various types of rice and curry, rotti, kothu, hoppers and short-eats.  Even after 6 years in the country, I would still sometimes be surprised by a new curry for example bitter-gourd or bread-fruit curry.  Pol sambol is a coconut dish that is a must and even attempted in the UK with desiccated coconut is better than going without!

Elephant near the East Coast, em6
Elephant near the East Coast

The landscapes in Sri Lanka are really unique and I cannot stress enough how varied they are.  There really is something for everyone in Sri Lanka.  Whether it is a cooler climate in the hills or tea plantations, the vibrant palm-fringed beaches of the South or idyllic deserted beaches of the North-East, Sri Lanka has enough to keep the carbon footprint of those residing there low.  Some of my favourite outdoor activities there have been whale watching, surfing, hiking to world’s end, going on safari, fishing, cycling, ‘loris spotting’, white-water rafting, snorkelling and water-skiing.

Beach near Mirissa-em2
Beach near Mirissa

It is of course impossible to fit into a few words why Sri Lanka is such a special place and I must stress that I have described it very generically, when in reality it is a complex place which holds multiple meanings to different people.  There are also contradictions that make living or visiting there hard, such as the opulence in post-war Colombo juxtaposed with the abject poverty that many of those in urban slums or rural areas live in.  However, Sri Lanka is changing rapidly and in time to come hopefully the wealth will trickle down, especially with the current boom in tourism.  It is also fantastic as an expatriate living in Colombo, which is fast resembling parts of Singapore and Kuala Lumpa, and foreign imports mean that once luxury items such as Hellman’s mayonnaise or cheddar cheese are readily available.  However, running the risk of sounding like a travel guide (!), if you are the kind of person who likes to feel like that they are travelling off the beaten track, then now is the time to visit Sri Lanka, when you can still enjoy the island pace of life, or as locals put it ‘island time’ and easily find a stunning beach to yourself which you only have to share with the waves lapping against the shore and the sunset!

Buddhist Temple_Tangalle, em3
Buddhist Temple_Tangalle

Written by Emily Marshall

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